If you look at the sign that goes with our Advent wreath here you will see that there is more than one way to frame the themes of Advent – the focus of each Sunday was we move through this waiting season. You can think of the themes hope, peace, joy and love. Or as we are sharing in our Advent wreath song this year, you can think of the mothers and fathers of our faith, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary, or we can get a bit more middle ages and go with death, judgement, heaven and hell.
So this week that gives us a combination of peace, prophets and judgement – the only bit of which might surprise you after the reading we’ve just heard from Matthew’s gospel is perhaps the peace bit. It didn’t sound very peaceful, did it? And you’d be forgiven too for thinking that John the Baptists has made a slightly previous appearance. Don’t worry – next week, as John languishes in prison, we will hear Jesus speak of who John is and how John points the way to his own identity.
This week we meet John the prophet – John the wild man in the dessert. He’s wearing camel hair – famous for it’s warming qualities on cold dessert nights – but not on this occasion fashioned into a smart gents coat I think – more like the stuff they made carpets and tents from. He’s eating locusts and wild honey – – and the weird thing is – people are being drawn to him in droves. From the towns and cities and all along the river.
There was always a joke in the lifetime of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth that she must have thought the entire world smelled like fresh paint – because that was how she experienced it. When the monarch approaches – things are prepared for the visit. And here we hear John telling us that the way of the Lord – the road on which the messiah will return, is being prepared not with a fresh lick of paint, but with water, fire and axe.
Doesn’t sound very peaceful, does it?
Think about what John knows – about what John is being driven to tell us by his faith, by his calling. He knows, he believes with passionate conviction, that the time has come when the messiah foretold by the prophet Isaiah will come.
The one on whom the spirit of the Lord will rest
The one who will carry God’s wisdom and understanding, counsel and might
The one who will transform the earth not by bringing the kind of judgement the kings and judges of old brought – but with a judgement that is the expression of God’s righteousness – liberating the poor and the meek and striking the wicked down.
And it is through this judgement that the earth will come to know peace – and not a peace which is a sad compromise. Not a peace which comes at the cost of the weak, forced to placate the strong – but a peace so transformative, so deep, that the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, the lion eat straw like an Ox. There will be no hurt or destruction – and the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
This is the kind of peace which the Messiah brings – and John knows that the people are not ready to receive it.
The way for this kind of peace is not prepared in the hearts and lives of the people John preaches to. I wonder if it is prepared in our hearts and lives?
This kind of peace requires the transformation not just of the carnivores of jungle and desert, lions leopards and bears – but the human predators, the dangerous beasts of town and country – whose lives are made luxurious by the suffering of others – whose manner of existence turns other humans into economic units, into slaves, into poverty, into destitution. Those whose way of being makes them predators of the wholeness and dignity of other humans, other children of God.
It sounds extreme doesn’t it? But what about fast fashion and sweatshops? What about air miles of goods and people? What about feasting while others go hungry? What about the oceans rising over nations who have done nothing to contribute to global warming while long industrialised nations refuse responsibility? What about an internet full of porn and communities racked by poverty? Camps crammed with refugees on England’s shores, and desperate humans, who dare to hope that a nation founded on the teachings of Christ will help them, floating in our waters. What about eyes that will not see and ears that will not hear?
And John cries “prepare the way of the lord – make his path straight.”
Change your heart, change your mind, change your life – because if you long to know the peace that God can bring it won’t be a compromise, it won’t be a blag, the messiah sees who we really are, what we’ve really done, the contents of our hearts.
The Pharisees and Saduceses that John calls vipers – they weren’t really bad people. The pharisees were obsessed with purity – they would have looked pretty impressive to most people – but their pride in purity overrode the call of their faith to compassion and humanity.
They might not have seemed to be doing anything wrong – but they weren’t taking the risk of doing anything right either. They might flock to the river Jordan to the wacky prophet – he looks weird – he speaks with such passion – he’s very entertaining. But John calls them out because for them it’s all about appearance and power and status.
John appears like a wild man – he wears none of the outward signs of earthly authority.
John doesn’t claim to be the most powerful – he insists his own humility before the one who is coming after – the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.
He lives his vocation in word and in action.
And he calls us to a real repentance – the reshaping of heart and mind and life – which is the real way to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus. He asks us not to just go through the motions of our faith, to claim the surface privileges and pleasures of our baptism into this community of faith – but to dare to pass through the waters that will liberate us and all humanity from the chains of slavery to our own sin and its consequences.
I ask you this morning, what repentance does the call of John the Baptist point you to this Advent? When John calls you back to the waters of your baptism, what is it that you long to have washed away as together we turn from the darkness of our selves and our society?
As we pray for ourselves, the church and the world in our intercessions today I invite you to ask God to help you reshape your heart and mind and life to prepare the way for Jesus. To show you what repentance looks like in word and action for you today.
Then, before you come up for communion, you may like to go to the font – where there is a bowl full of water blessed for baptism. Before you come to the table you might like to go and touch that water – perhaps cross yourself – just make a sign – be washed in the waters of baptism, a sign of our turning to all that brings peace, a sign of our repentance and our turning to the light of Christ.
If we are uncomfortable with the idea of God’s judgement, today we are reminded that in Jesus we have come to know that God judges with compassion and mercy – and in that compassion and mercy God calls us to be the people through whom God’s peace on earth might be known as we share the Good news of Jesus Christ.
Because of God’s judgement we are not condemned by our own action and inaction – time and again we are given the opportunity to repent and turn to all that is good, to all that brings freedom and peace.
Prepare the way of the Lord, Make his path straight.
That the earth may be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.